Here's a simple rule for filmmakers: If an actress of Helen Mirren's caliber is willing to mount a white unicorn for you, don't squander the image. That's what director Iain Softley does in Inkheart, his sloppy, aggravatingly frenetic adaptation of Cornelia Funke's popular fantasy novel about fictional characters who spring to life when the right person reads them aloud.
In Inkheart's parlance, people with this talent for reading literature into flesh and blood are known as "Silvertongues." (In the similarly themed Christmas release Bedtime Stories, they were known as Adam Sandler). For Mo Folchart (Brendan Fraser), being a Silvertongue has proved something of a curse. Nine years ago he read aloud from book called Inkheart to disastrous consequences. Out popped several bandits, including head villain Capricorn (Andy Serkis) and a gloomy fellow named Dustfingers (Paul Bettany) who starts fires with his hands. As if that weren't bad enough, into the book went Mo's wife, Resa (Sienna Guillory), leaving behind her disconsolate husband and child. (See pictures of movie costumes.)
Mo has never explained any of this to Resa's tart Aunt Elinor (Mirren) or his daughter Meggie (Eliza Bennett), now a relatively well-adjusted 12-year-old despite having endured a childhood almost entirely without bedtime stories. For nine long years, Mo has been dragging the poor girl on a tour of European bookshops looking for the out-of-print Inkheart, hoping to read his wife back out. Presumably the story is set in a time before the Internet, when abebooks.com might have helped him out.
Following close on Mo's heels are Capricorn and Dustfingers. What Dustfingers wants from Mo is to be read back into the book, where his wife (played by Bettany's wife Jennifer Connelly in a Hitchcock-sized cameo) is waiting for him. What Capricorn wants from Mo is wide-ranging, yet unclear, just like the rest of the movie. Capricorn has done well for himself in the nonfiction world, acquiring an Italian castle and an army of minions. But he'd also like some treasure, courtesy of Mo reading aloud from Arabian Nights, or maybe a supervillain pal to help him take over the world. Serkis, who voiced Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, looks something like the harmlessly goofy Mr. Bean, but Capricorn's threats are real and so are his henchmen's guns. (See the top 10 movie performances of 2008.)
Mostly what Capricorn does is send people to his many dungeons, which are loaded with discards from other Silvertongue incidents, including some of Frank Baum's flying monkeys, a Minotaur and that white unicorn. This cast traipses in and out of more small dark rooms than someone looking for a studio apartment in New York City. And when they're not being thrown in a dungeon, they're either fleeing from the castle or trying to sneak back in. Whatever they seek, they generally find, but then forget to use.
They are a uniformly frustrating lot, brightened only by regular quips from Mirren or the always marvelous Jim Broadbent, who plays the fictional Inkheart's author, Fenoglio. He and Mirren mine their parts for any comic angle, wisely staying out of the dramatic fray. Bettany looks as though he's itching to do the same, but he gets stuck with a lot of self-important strutting and moping and as result, he fares the worst. The movie veers between silly and scary, but ultimately, its tone and level of violence seem inappropriate for either a typical PG audience or Funke's original intended 9-12 target audience.
It's unfortunate timing for Softley's adaptation to arrive in theaters right after Bedtime Stories. It's not that Inkheart suffers in direct comparison Bedtime was soundly spanked by critics but the similarities do deflate the appeal of the premise. To overcome that, the film has to offer something special, going beyond the easy score of referencing classic works of children's literature. Certainly it's a treat to see a Silvertongue bring The Wizard of Oz's Toto to life, or enjoy the visual gag of seeing Capricorn's henchman land in the middle of Kansas, post-tornado. But the internal story, the meta-Inkheart as penned by Fenoglio, never comes into focus; if I were Capricorn, I'd want to escape its tedious pages as well. And if I were Mirren, I'd steer that unicorn right off the screen.